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Novak Djokovic Eyes Up History as Matteo Berrettini has Already Made it

By Alix Ramsay

Even Novak Djokovic had to admit it: Denis Shapovalov should have won the first set – he served for it – and he was the better player in the second set.

But he still lost. The world No.1 is through to his seventh Wimbledon final and chasing his sixth title. It is also his 30th grand slam final and he is trying to win his 20th trophy. Who can stop him?

Shapovalov did everything he could think of to do it but he was muscled aside 7-6, 7-5, 7-5. He left the court in tears; he had never reached a grand slam semi-final before and he had so, so many chances against Djokovic. But he did not take them; he could not take them.

Sometimes, it was his own nerve that let him down; sometimes it was the Serb’s iron will that refused to let Shapovalov pass. “Giving up is never an option,” he told the crowd after the match. It hasn’t been for the past decade.

It all added up to the same thing – the defending champion had won and he stood with one hand on the trophy.

“He was serving for first set,” Djokovic said. “He was better for most of the second set. Had a lot of opportunities and just didn’t manage to close it out when he needed to.

“In important moments I think I probably held my nerves better than he did and just make him play an extra shot, make him do an unforced error, which was the case.”

The last man standing with a shot of stopping him is Matteo Berrettini, the world No.9 with the golden arm. He of the thundering serve and terrifying forehand dispatched Hubert Hurkacz 6-3, 6-0, 6-7, 6-4 to become the first Italian man ever to reach a Wimbledon final. He could have wrapped it up in three sets but he played a stinker of tiebreak at the end of the third set. No matter, he regrouped, broke at the start of the fourth and refused to be stopped.

“Things are all over the place,” he said a couple of hours later, still trying to get his head around what he had just done. “At the same time, I think I handled the situation pretty well. I step in the court; I was feeling confident. I knew that I could win the match. I think I played my best match so far.”

It has to be said, there is not a lot of love for Italy and the Italians in London at the moment. England play the Azzurri on Sunday night in the finals of Euro 2020. For the first time since 1966, England has a chance to win a major championship. Funnily enough that ’66 World Cup final was played at Wembley, too. And they beat Germany 4-2 in extra time after a dodgy call from a linesman. But we digress… anyway, no one in the southern part of this damp little island will be supporting the Italians this weekend. Except, maybe, those lucky enough to have a Centre Court ticket on Sunday.

Djokovic is well aware that he may not win the popularity contest on Sunday. He has had better support this year than in the past but, then again, he is the only established champion to have made a run here. Rafa Nadal did not play, Andy Murray was gone by the third round and Roger Federer was beaten in the quarters. In the absence of any other really famous name to cheer it was Djokovic or no one.

Yet on Sunday, he will go back to being the playground bully. Berrettini will be the underdog (and we Brits love an underdog); he is also charming, unassuming off the court but fabulous to watch on it. He is, in short, a crowd pleaser.

“But hopefully people can also recognise also the importance of this match for me, the history that is on the line,” Djokovic said, sounding a little desperate. “Yeah, I’m prepared for anything really that is going to happen in terms of the crowd support on Sunday. I’ve had many different experiences throughout my career. I just need to focus on myself and what I need to do.”

The crowd was behind the Italian every step of the way for a set and a half on Friday. The only reason they started cheering for the other bloke was that they wanted Hurkacz to make a match of it and give them another couple of sets to enjoy. But when Berrettini finally won, they raised the rafters on the venerable old court.

In the past month, Berrettini has won 11 consecutive grass court matches; he has won 151 of 158 service games and he is the champion of Queen’s Club. Oh, and just for good measure, he has reached two grass court finals in his life so far and won them both. Three out of three on Sunday? It is a huge ask but with those weapons, anything is possible.

“First slam finals,” he said, still sounding a little stunned. “I don’t know. I’m just so, so happy for everything. My year started in a good way, with the finals in ATP Cup. Then I got injured again. I kind of saw those ghosts again of my body kind of struggling.

“Again, I came back stronger. I think I fully deserve to be here. I want to enjoy like I did today. I want to enjoy my first final. Whoever’s going to win, I just appreciate what’s happening. So, I’m very happy.”

And, if he’s lucky, he’ll get back to the hotel in time to watch the football. He is the one Italian that the whole of England will happily cheer for this weekend.